by Guy Lerner

DVD (digital versatile disc) has come of age as the defacto crossover medium from the waning days of analogue to the waxing years of digital. But it hasn’t been an easy drive by any means, and the road ahead is still far from certain.

This article will explore the development of DVD from its early days as a video-only medium to its present incarnation as jack-of-all trades. I’ll try making sense of the contenders for the DVD recordable crown, and chart the likely future of the medium with its challengers already looming on the technology horizon.

So sit back, relax, pop the popcorn and enjoy the spin!

The new pretender
In the past few days, I’ve used DVD to archive my cumbersome photo library, to backup my critical computer files, to enjoy a Sting concert in high-definition surround sound, to play a slideshow of the family vacation, to score seven hours of mp3 music for an all-day party, and to watch the latest Hollywood blockbuster in my living room.

You’d think I’d needed a truck the size of my living room for all the equipment, but instead I did it all using just a handful of cd-sized plastic discs.

The pervasiveness of DVD has taken many, myself included, by complete surprise. Until recently most people considered it a nice-to-have, a plaything of home cinema owners or seriously serious PC enthusiasts. But in recent months the bottom’s fallen out of the price market, dragging the DVD kicking and screaming (in all its 5.1 discrete channel glory of course) to millions of willing consumers.

PC DVD burners that cost well over $1000 a year ago started selling for 20% of that; DVD recorders previously priced for Porsche drivers became affordable to Hyundai owners (like me). But pricing aside, DVD became a crossover technology almost overnight, as close to a digital storage standard as we have in today’s standards-driven world.

You could argue the DVD has been doing its thing for much longer than I allude to, and you’d be right too; DVD has been a video format standard for nearly a decade already. DVD-ROM has also been widely available on the PC for about as long, maybe even longer. But DVD’s usefulness as a crossover medium was limited by one significant technicality: until recently, it was read-only.

For all intents and purposes, writing onto a DVD was difficult, nigh impossible for the majority of users like you and me. Even when writable DVDs started making their mark, questions were raised about their reliability, and a whole new can of worms was opened when movie studios suddenly realised the implications of recordable media (it meant their movies could be copied, and unlike analog copies, the DVD versions would be every bit identical to the original).

Within months the basic encryption used to “protect” DVD movies from piracy was cracked (and the cracker duly prosecuted), and from an innocent and useful technology was borne a dangerous threat to Hollywood’s licensing cash cow. Rogue software developers began developing simple solutions for duplicating movies to DVD, and the hoopla created by the movie studio spin-doctors made sure everyone and his dog knew how it was done (and how to do it).

By the time the recordable war was well underway, DVD was the undisputed industry standard for delivering cinema-quality movies to consumer homes, and quickly replacing all other forms of mass storage for computer storage to boot!

Standards screw-up
From the onset, recordable DVD seemed destined to shoot itself in the foot. While some of the industry’s biggest names were responsible for developing the original DVD format back in 1995, dissention in the ranks meant a split when it came time to develop a recordable standard.

The first standard to be ratified was the DVD-R (“dash”, not “minus”) format. This was the original blueprint of the DVD Forum, the same forum of companies responsible for developing DVD technology.

Then a small number of companies, headed up by the likes of Sony and Philips, decided to create their own format, DVD+R (“plus”). Both dash and plus formats were intended to be compatible with DVD-ROM drives in PCs, but compatibility with DVD video players was – and still is – very vendor-specific (most newer DVD players are happy to play back both formats, but older players will play one or the other or, in some cases, neither). Worse, plus and dash were incompatible with each other.

Adding to the confusion, Panasonic introduced a third format, DVD-RAM, which promised the same random-access nature of computer hard drives but sacrificed widespread compatibility with the two main recordable formats. Few DVD players (other than Panasonic’s, of course) will play back video recorded onto DVD-RAM, and even fewer PC DVD-ROM drives will recognise it. Still it maintains a following in data-centric environments, and is slowly being accepted by mainstream dash and plus readers and writers.

Plus and dash have since evolved to include –RW and +RW (RW being rewritable) formats, the DVD equivalent of CD rewritable. Again these formats are incompatible with one another, and offer their own specific advantages depending on the application, but with the development of multiple-format readers and writers, the distinction becomes irrelevant.

Thankfully it seems the popularity of DVD makes fiascos like the VHS versus Betamax format war unlikely. The uptake of DVD players in the home is slowly displacing the venerable VCR, and newer players are designed to play back every availably format, from CDs, CD rewritables and recordable DVDs. Even DVD writers (for PCs) and recorders (for video) are starting to support multiple formats.

Subtle distinctions remain: for instance, Hollywood movies are “pressed”, not “burned” (like DVD recordables) onto nine gigabyte (or DVD-9) media. Most DVD recordable media are formatted to the DVD-5 (five gigabyte) standard. Later this year the introduction of DVD-9 recordable media will further blur the distinction for consumers (and, ironically, make life easier for movie pirates in the process).

But it seems, as the dust settles, that what we have is a technology that at its core has become the storage medium of choice for everything from spreadsheets to blockbusters. Most DVD playback devices will accept most DVD media, burned or pressed, DVD-5 or DVD-9, single layer or dual layer. The only threat, it seems, is a technology that promises to make DVD redundant in its prime.

Feeling Blu
Not much is known about the so-called Blu-Ray technology, other than it was developed by a consortium of large companies (as was DVD), and was designed as the outright replacement of the DVD. Blu-Ray uses blue (rather than DVD’s red) laser to store more information on the same-sized disc. This means one single-layer Blu-Ray disc will hold up to 23 gigabytes of data, as opposed to DVD’s five, and up to 45 gigabytes on dual-layer discs.

Blu-Ray has also been touted as the ultimate crossover medium, with the same specs for movie playback and PC use. This means movie players and computers will use (and be fully cross-compatible) with all Blu-Ray media, something DVD has approached, but not quite achieved.

Sony has already demonstrated a working Blu-Ray recorder, and other companies are sure to follow. The saving grace for DVD is its mass-market adoption; so don’t expect Blu-Ray to make its mark on DVD sales for several years yet. What Blu-Ray does mean, however, is the likely demise of the CD and definite demise of the VCR. DVD will do the job of replacing VCRs in the next few years, and will eat into the CD market as high-definition DVD audio becomes commonplace. Blu-Ray will finish off the older technologies, offering a viable but more expensive alternative to DVD.

Not long now
DVD has the summit in sight, but the last few, painful steps will also be the toughest. It will have to convince Joe Public to forget about products he’s grown up with – like the VCR and the CD – and offer a better, cheaper, easier alternative. On the other end of the scale it will have to convince technophiles that it can hold its own despite multiple formats and impending challengers to its crown, and appease wealthy movie studios that their products are safe in the face of spiralling piracy.

Failure on any front could lead to further diffraction, spin-off standards and lost sales, even a fight back from older technologies. If the old vinyl record can make a comeback despite the ubiquity of the CD, who knows what the CD can offer disgruntled DVD owners?

But that’s in the future. Today, there’s nothing quite like spinning up a DVD movie you’ve made with your PC, firing up the surround-sound amplifier, and sitting back with family and friends to enjoy the treat. For DVD lovers the world over, what happens next is another story.

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